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Hair cell

JLO Glossary Term: Hair Cell

Hair cells are sensory cells in the cochlea that convert sound vibrations into electrical signals that then travel along the auditory nerve to the brain. Loss of or damage to hair cells results in permanent hearing loss.

Hair cells are the sensory receptors of both the auditory system and the vestibular system in all vertebrates. Through mechanotransduction, hair cells detect movement in their environment. In mammals, the auditory hair cells are located within the organ of Corti on a thin basilar membrane in the cochlea of the inner ear. They derive their name from the tufts of stereocilia that protrude from the apical surface of the cell, a structure known as the hair bundle, into the scala media, a fluid-filled tube within the cochlea. Mammalian cochlear hair cells come in two anatomically and functionally distinct types: the outer and inner hair cells. Damage to these hair cells results in decreased hearing sensitivity, i.e. sensorineural hearing loss, and because human hair cells are incapable of regeneration, this damage is permanent. However, other organisms, such as the frequently studied zebrafish, have regenerating hair cells.

Research of the past decades[who?] has shown that outer hair cells do not send neural signals to the brain, but that they mechanically amplify low-level sound that enters the cochlea. The amplification may be powered by movement of their hair bundles, or by an electrically driven motility of their cell bodies. The inner hair cells transform the sound vibrations in the fluids of the cochlea into electrical signals that are then relayed via the auditory nerve to the auditory brainstem and to the auditory cortex.

Results in recent years further indicate that mammals apparently have conserved an evolutionarily earlier type of hair-cell motility. This so-called hair-bundle motility amplifies sound in all non-mammalian land vertebrates. It is affected by the closing mechanism of the mechanical sensory ion channels at the tips of the hair bundles. Thus, the same hair-bundle mechanism that detects sound vibrations also actively “vibrates back” and thereby mechanically amplifies weak incoming sound.

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